In this video from Penn State's School of Theatre production of Twelfth Night, Toby, Andrew, and Fabian conceal themselves in a box tree while Maria plants the forged letter where Malvolio will find it. Malvolio reads it and falls for the prank, which dictates that he should alter his behavior and appearance to win Olivia's favor. Malvolio exits, determined to do whatever it takes to impress his love, and Toby, Andrew, and Fabian come out of hiding to congratulate Maria for her ingenuity. All four of them leave to watch Malvolio make a fool of himself in front of Olivia.
This scene features the practical joke that Maria promises Sir Toby she would play on Malvolio, at the end of Act II Sc 3. She has written a letter forging Olivia’s handwriting. This letter declares Olivia’s love for a man that can be no other than Malvolio, although his name is not clearly mentioned. It directs him to act in a manner that will seem foolish and may even irk Olivia, all for the apparent reason of pleasing the lady and securing her love! But Malvolio falls for it immediately because he is thrilled at the prospect. Once again, we see a character taking himself far too seriously in this scene. Malvolio can’t get enough of his own shadow, and when he wanders into the garden (and right into Maria’s trap), his own self-important musings blind him to the joke being played on him. He actually believes that Olivia might have feelings for him and considers marrying her…even becoming Count Malvolio! It is this self-aggrandizing attitude that allows Malvolio to believe the contents of Maria’s forged love note and ultimately leads to his humiliation. He sees what he wants to see because he is blinded by pride, and he is a ripe target for the prank because he is utterly unable to recognize his folly, let alone laugh at himself.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em is a very famous line that Maria (writing as Olivia) uses to describe Malvolio. It’s funny to see such a line (which seems more typical of a heroic character like Henry V or Julius Caesar or Othello) be associated with Malvolio of all the people. The audience realizes that it is absurd for him to believe that greatness is his destiny.
Although Maria’s letter is intended to fool Malvolio into dreaming of marrying the lady he serves, an unexpected result is that Sir Toby finds himself appreciating Maria more than ever. And similar to Malvolio, declares that Maria, too, finds him attractive with little evidence of its truth. Throughout the play, Shakespeare has dealt with different levels of love. Every character in the story has a different reason for falling in love with someone and the bard is inclined to make fun of each one of them.
Characterization of Malvolio:
When Maria enters the scene, she claims that Malvolio “has been yonder i’ the sun practicing behavior to his own shadow this half hour” (Lines 15-17). A few lines later, she declares that Malvolio is “the trout that must be caught with tickling” (Lines 21-22); in other words, he must be stroked or gently flattered into this prank. How do these details about Malvolio further establish his character and its flaws? What makes him such a great target for a prank? What caution might Shakespeare be offering his audience here?
Lines 149-157: Read these lines carefully and list the instructions Olivia’s letter specifies. What is Malvolio to do to demonstrate his affection? What should he wear? How should he act? Also note the post script in Lines 174-178.
Malvolio’s reaction to the letter:
Lines 164-166: “I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me, for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me.” How does Shakespeare use dramatic irony to a comic effect here?
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